Common among these artists are a commitment to the human figure as their principal subject and an investment in mundane, rough-hewn materials whose worked surfaces forcefully declare the mind and hand of the artist. Both concerns were, of course, central to Moore. He explored three basic formats in his figurative work—standing, seated and in repose—with the last, the reclining form, developing into what he classified as an “obsession.”7 Monahan’s, Curry’s and Houseago’s choice and manipulation of materials reveal another level of engagement with Moore’s philosophy of art-making, particularly his well-known “truth to materials” ethos. Moore insisted that the materials he used retain their identity as matter, even when worked into the form of a completed sculpture. He wanted his chosen materials to be undisguised, and his labor, as he conceived it, was never aimed at transforming those materials into the appearance of something else. For Moore, a “sculpture in stone should look honestly like stone . . . to make it look like flesh and blood, hair and dimples is coming down to the level of the stage conjurer.”8
The same impulse cuts across the work of Houseago, Curry and Monahan. Their work is expressive and figurative, subtended not by an interest in mimesis or verisimilitude but rather in facture and physicality. Rough, muscular, ungainly and often comical, imposing figures such as Houseago’s oversized Baby (2009-10), recently on view in the 2010 Whitney Biennial, are ad hoc constructions of deliberately inelegant materials put together in such a way that their brute materiality and primitive features and posture work in tandem. Houseago’s figures elbow their way to the table of contemporary sculpture, forcing a conversation that feels radical precisely in its indebtedness to the past.
In Curry’s abstractions, Moore’s preoccupation with disfigurement through distention and attenuation is adopted and exaggerated. But unlike Moore’s figures, all of which remain discernibly anthropomorphic even when subjected to his most radical distortions, Curry’s garishly colorful sculptures such as Mr. Square in Flatland (Reclining), 2009, in Miami’s Rubell Family Collection, are more biomorphism and geometry than human figure, and they rely on the viewer’s desire to find a presence in the faintest suggestion.
Of the three, Monahan’s concentration on damage and disfigurement is the most striking. Pedestal-bound human figures like Rangoon Detour (2008), shown at New York’s Anton Kern Gallery in 2008, are composite forms, cobbled together from a motley array of salvaged and fabricated materials, conjuring an image of humanity hanging by a thread. Like Houseago and Curry, Mona- han’s interest in abjection is balanced by a commitment to the human form that is serious and sobering. And as with Moore, who produced some of his most powerful work in the period bounded by the aftermath of two wars—the early 1920s to the late 1940s—it is tempting to speculate that the resurgent interest in figuration seen in the work of these three sculptors emanates from a comparable impulse to preserve the possibility of representation in the face of the brutal toll exacted on the body by war. Whether or not this last conjecture passes muster, these contemporary images of humanity openly converse with those produced by an artist more than three generations ago, and in this return to the not-too-distant past may lie an exciting new beginning of an old story.
1 Chris Stephens, “Anything But Gentle: Henry Moore—Modern Sculptor,” in Chris Stephens, ed., Henry Moore, London, Tate, 2010, p. 12.
2 See guardian.co.uk
3 Stephens, Henry Moore, p. 19.
4 Ibid., p. 38.
5 Ibid., p. 51.
6 Ibid., p. 65.
7 Henry Moore on Sculpture, ed. Phillip James, London, Macdonald, 1966, p. 264.
8 Ibid., p. 59.
“Henry Moore” appeared at Tate Britain, London, Feb. 24-Aug. 8. Sculptures by Matthew Monahan, Aaron Curry and Thomas Houseago are included in “Statuesque,” at City Hall Park, New York [see article this issue]. An Aaron Curry show is on view at Michael Werner, New York [Sept. 20-Oct. 20]. Recent works by Matthew Monahan are at Anton Kern, New York [Oct. 28-Dec. 11]. “Mineral Spirits: Anne Chu and Matthew Monahan” is on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, Sept. 15-Dec. 5.
CHRISTOPHER BEDFORD is chief curator at the Wexner Center for the Arts.